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If you haven’t already read The Sisters Brothers by Patrick dewitt, well, you must. The novel achieved considerable recognition when it appeared in 2011, shortlisted for awards such as the Man Booker, Scotiabank Giller, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust. It is due to arrive in Sherbrooke any day now in its film version, featuring a quirky cast—john C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed—under the direction of Palme d’or winner Jacques Audiard (5' 8 "!).
The Sisters Brothers, like Deadwood and Unforgiven, belongs to a new type of Western genre—one in which subtleties of character vie with the traditional stereotypical black/white conflicts (bad guys vs good guys, settlers vs injuns, farmers vs cattle ranchers) and in which moral choice becomes a critical plot element.
We are taken directly into the story through the deadpan, whimsical, and at times irascible narration of the main character, Eli Sisters. The year is 1851, at the height of the California gold rush, and he and brother Charlie (the other Sisters brother) are in the employ of the Commodore, whose base of operations is Oregon City. The Commodore is at the center of a vast illegal enterprise, whose operations are as ruthless as they are widespread. Eli and Charlie are charged with going to San Francisco, then seeking out and killing one Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector who has somehow offended the Commodore.
At this point you have to pull your hat firmly down on your head and hold tight to the reins, because this is going to be a helluva yarn—or at least a shaggy dog story. Things get off on the wrong foot at the get-go. Charlie is appointed “lead man” by the Commodore, in a departure from the traditional equal footing shared by the two brothers. This rankles and leads to some peevish exchanges. The brothers have been given two new mounts to replace the ones “immolated” on their previous mission, and Eli takes exception to his new horse—even its name, Tub, seems a silent and constant reproach for Eli’s tendency to put on extra pounds. In short order, Eli is bitten by a poisonous spider, suffers agonies from an abscessed tooth; then they encounter a self-appointed dentist, an evil witch woman, Tub is attacked by a grizzly, then they meet a group of bellicose prospectors, then… well you get the idea.
In all these events Charlie reveals as fiercely loyal, but a hothead, and the one who most often resorts to violence. Eli is more contemplative, but once his ire is raised, cool and deadly in any confrontation. The brothers work their way to San Francisco, and on the way they meet all manner of desperate and shady characters.
One critic rightly labels the work as a “picaresque”, a genre originating in 16th century Spain. The picaresque typically recounts the travels and adventures of a rogue, a bandit, a prostitute, or some other marginal or low-life character. This hero—or anti-hero—encounters a crosssection of characters from different walks of life, and typically satire is the main focus. So, tales as varied as Don Quixote, Barry Lyndon, Tom Jones, Moll Flanders—even Huckleberry Finn—are pretty much variations on this genre. But, while the characters in most picaresques are static and fixed, Eli shows great depth. He longs for the love of a woman, and finds his and his brother’s random acts of violence increasingly distasteful. As the story progresses we discover the troubled past of the two brothers, and see what made them into violent sociopaths. So, if there is such a thing as a psychological picaresque, this is it.
To add to this complexity, the brothers’ language is startlingly refined. Thar ain’t nuthin’ of varmints nor danged, cussed, consarned, low-down polecats about their elocution. Their exchanges tend to be pithy and cutting—elegant in a way—and and what is unsaid often drives the action. In a Guardian interview with Susanna Ruston dewitt discusses how he delights in revealing character through dialogue: ‘“You can show so much about a person from what he shares and obscures,” he says. “I come back more and more to the rhythm of conversation, when two people are engaged and feeding off one other; that is relentlessly interesting to me. I come by writing dialogue fairly naturally, I’ve got a chatty family, I’m a bit of a voyeur, and if I’m ever in a public place I automatically find myself listening.”’
The novel lacks the complexities of many contemporary works, perhaps because dewitt is no product of creative writing programs. In fact, his success has a bit of the JK Rowling about it. He was never really clear on a career path and ended up, after several missteps, serving drinks in a bar three nights a week to make ends meet. In his spare time he worked on his writing and finally plucked up enough nerve to show one of his drafts to a customer, who happened to know someone who knew someone who was a literary agent. Voila! Dewitt consciously makes plot his chief focus— he wants every work to be a page turner with a story that will compel the reader.
He succeeds wonderfully. The Sisters Brothers is available in both text and audiobook in the Lennoxville Library.